Last month, I was invited by Amy Tipton, owner of Sassafras in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood to be the featured designer for the Belltown Artwalk. If you need an excuse to go shopping for clothes that fit well and look fantastic, make sure to plan your trip around a stop at Sassafras. Amy is both personable and professional. She will find just the right pieces to make you look your best.
The following interview was published to promote the SpiderFelt brand. Since the questions provide insight into my process, it seems fitting to share it with all my fans.
Sassafras: Leah, you have a line of beautiful nunofelted items in organic shapes. Can you explain what nunofelting is, and how it’s distinguished from just “felting”?
Leah: The term “nunofelting means “cloth” in Japanese. It was coined by Sachiko Kotaka and Polly Stirling to describe the fabric that results from wool fibers felting through cloth, typically silk or cotton gauze. Felting is simply the process which brings wool fibers together to create a dense fabric. Nunofelting involves fabric and wool fiber, while felting is just the wool. The benefit of nunofelting is you can use very small amounts of wool to achieve the warmth offered by felt while still maintaining the drape of the original fabric. Nunofelting often results in a highly textured fabric because the base fabric contracts during the felting process. I love seeing how different fabrics react to the wool fiber as I nunofelt.
Sassafras: Your line is called Spiderfelt. How did you choose that name for your products?
Leah: There is a quirky children’s book called Sophie’s Masterpiece by Eileen Spinelli about a spunky spider who spins life and color into the dreary boarding house where she lives with people who have forgotten how to live. She wears patterned stockings and a jaunty beret. I loved the illustrations and the idea of this creature surreptitiously adding a little life to this dull place. If I was to pick a totem from the animal kingdom, it would definitely be a spider: always industrious, building something strong and functional, yet beautiful at the same time. My original logo was illustrated by Geninne Zlatkis.
Sassafras: Tell me about where you work.
Leah: I share a studio in Ballard with three fiber artists in the BallardWorks building near the Locks. It is a three-story studio building owned by four artists. We participate in the Ballard Artwalk every second Saturday.
It is a fantastic, light-filled studio always bustling with activity. Friends stop by when they’re in the neighborhood, as do folks walking by who wonder what we do, and of course the other tenants in the building. Our studio is on the main floor facing Market Street. In the morning, it is always cool and quiet. It is a haven and a constant source of creative energy. You can see pictures of this beehive on our Facebook page.
Sassafras: How did you become interested in fiber arts as a career?
Leah: My mother is a seamstress, knitter, baker, builder. I grew up thinking that if you wanted something just so, it was best to make it yourself. As a young mother, I was disappointed with the toys mass-marketed for young children. I didn’t want a hobby horse with an electric chip that made it whinny, so I knit an enormous wool sock, stuffed it with rags and attached it to a broomstick. Before long I was knitting constantly and devouring craft books. I tried one of everything but it wasn’t until I picked up my first book on making felt that I gave it more than a cursory stab. After making dozens of felt soaps for last-minute Christmas gifts, I wanted to try everything else in the book. There were so many things to explore, and felt making is very easy to just pick up – no kiln or loom or printing press required. I’m still experimenting, Learning, revising and discovering new ways to felt.
Leah: Most of my clothes are up-cycled or refashioned in some way. I have altered many of my clothes, and love to buy handmade clothes from Seattle’s bounty of talent. Mass-produced clothes are so boring and don’t fit quite right.
Sassafras: We’ve noticed the organic shapes of your designs. Some of the clothing looks like you could have plucked it from the forest. It’s gorgeous! Do you have a muse for your work?
Leah: The landscape of the Northwest has shaped me. Deep down, there is a part of me that wants to live in the hollowed out roots of a giant Douglas fir, scampering over nurse logs and living on huckleberries in the dappled light of the temperate rainforest. My perfect day, when not felting, involves wandering through Carkeek Park gazing up at the big leaf maples and noticing the tiny fungal spores on a fallen cedar. There is so much texture on a moss and lichen covered cliff overlooking Puget Sound. The color of peeling layers on a Madrone tree brings me up short on a walk along the water’s edge. My parents own a cabin on Keats Island, in Howe Sound not far from Vancouver. The terrain is similar to Northwest Puget Sound. I spent my summers wandering through the woods, examining the marine life on the rocky beaches, gazing at the Coast Mountains while nestled on a mossy cliff. This is where my mind wanders when I’m alone.
Sassafras: What are your aspirations? What’s next for Spiderfelt?
Leah: People often wonder what they would do if they could have their heart’s desire. I wouldn’t change a thing. Working in a studio with three other people, being involved in the Ballard Artwalk, having my work at Sassafras, the Bellevue Arts Museum, and Bainbridge Island Museum of Art and Venue, I am always busy. Between teaching classes, filling custom orders and working on new projects, may days are full and my mind is always engaged. I say yes to every opportunity that appears on my doorstep. My greatest joy comes from teaching, both young learners and experienced folk who want to try something new. The only thing I would add would be traveling to teach, using my experience as a springboard to visit new places.